Black Sails History: The Real Charles Vane

We take a look at the real life inspiration for Black Sails' Charles Vane.

We know very little about the early life of Charles Vane. History first picks him up in 1715 or 1716 (even that is not sure) when he was living in Port Royal, Jamaica. Notes from the time indicate he had recently moved there, but from where, we just don’t know.

Some people believe that Charles wasn’t even English, he was French (Vané). If so, he was probably a Protestant (an important distinction when wars over religion were being fought, and the French were still persecuting non-Catholics). 

If this were the case, the historical Charles Vane may actually have been a “slave” at some time. From 1686 to 1688, the king of France ordered all French Protestants (the Huguenots) transported to the Island of Martinique, there to serve as… Well, between the 300 year time difference and the translation from French, the word isn’t quite clear.

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Most modern historians call it “indentured servitude” in which a person is under contract to work without pay for a certain number of years. But these kinds of “bond servants” were often under bond to work many years past their actual life expectancy. Plus, they could be bought or sold, with no say in the matter.

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Other historians look more closely at the French world and call them “serfs” (it’s important to remember that, during this time period, the ancient medieval governing systems were still partially in place). This isn’t a very pleasant word, either. A still smaller group look at the facts of servitude and just call them slaves.

Whatever, if Vane was part of this bunch, he would have been transported from France to Martinique. There he would have encountered an unusual situation. You see, when other countries seized undesirables and sent them out as – let’s call them slaves – those people didn’t have much in common with the people they were sold to. The Protestant English enslaved the Catholic Irish, the Spanish enslaved Native Americans and those English/Dutch that they could catch, and pretty much everybody enslaved Africans.

But Martinique was populated, not by French Catholics, but by other Huguenots, richer and luckier, who had seen what was coming in French politics and had bought land in the new colony of Martinique. These people weren’t comfortable with enslaving folk so like themselves, so in 1688 they all threw the system over and left the island, removing about 1/3 of its population in a peaceful revolt.

Most of these Protestant French headed for the English colonies, and it would have been 17 years before we get our first good report of Charles Vane, living in the old pirate town of Port Royal. This would have given the young man plenty of time to Anglicize himself, and plenty of reason to, asked if he was French, to reply “No!”

In 1715 or 1716, Vane signed on to the privateering crew of Henry Jennings. Jennings was legal (not a pirate – yet) but he was also part of a vast illegal movement to overthrow the sitting English king George I, and replace him with the Stuart (Scottish) James II. Jennings was one of the founders of the pirate colony of Nassau. He stood in opposition to Ben Hornigold, and even went so far as to offer James II a full navy, composed entirely of pirates, if James would recognize Nassau as an independent nation.

But at this point, Jennings was looting the wreck of the Spanish Treasure fleet of 1715 (including the historical Urca) along the coast of Florida. The Spanish had sent their army to retrieve and defend the gold, and Jennings led one of several armies of pirates who fought the Spanish up and down the beach for months.

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Jennings, Vane and crew returned to Nassau with £87,000 in gold. This was all illegal – Spain and England were not at war, but for some reason ($$$) the authorities made no effort to punish Jennings or his crew. Jennings then set out to illegally sack Havana.

All he managed to catch was a large French merchant vessel, and that with the help of Pirate-on-the-rise Sam Bellamy. Jennings then had an argument with Bellamy 9probably over Bellamy’s share of the loot) and Bellamy took off with most of the loot. Bellamy then joined forces with Hornigold.

The incident caused an international shitstorm, and to appease the French, the English declared Jennings a pirate.

Vane continued with Jennings, sacking ships and torturing people to find hidden money or gain information about shipping schedules, until 1718, when he acquired his own command, a Spanish brig he re-christened Ranger. Like many pirates, Vane traded vessels several times during his career, moving up in size, speed and armament. But he always called whatever ship he was using Ranger.

Vane seems to have scraped up Calico Jack Rackham as quartermaster at about this time. Woods Rogers had successfully landed in Nassau, and was offering pardons to any pirate who would promise to stop stealing stuff. Vane, and to a lesser extent Rackham, were some of the diehards who refused to accept the pardon.

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On July 6, 1718, Vane came into Nassau port in an attempt to burn Woods Rogers’ fleet. He nearly succeeded, but was chased off, when the pirates of Nassau did not rise up to join him. Vane then went to Charlestown, blockaded the port, and stole as many boasts as he could get away with. Apparently he planned to raise his own navy and re-take Nassau by force.

Possibly with this plan in mind, Vane looked up the semi-retired Blackbeard on Ocracoke Island in September or October of 1718. The two crews partied together for several days, then parted ways. Blackbeard was killed on November 22 of the same year.

Vane had been very successful financially, but he was not popular with his crew. Whether they wanted to go into Nassau and surrender, or were simply tired of hanging around with a man who apparently liked to hurt people for fun (real pirates were not nearly as bloodthirsty as they were portrayed) the crew wanted to get rid of Vane.

Their opportunity came when Vane refused to attack a heavily armed French merchant. We’ll never know the details of what happened, but the result was that Jack Rackham called for a vote of no-confidence in Captain Vane, accusing him of cowardice. Vane tried to maneuver the vote, but failed, and was put off in one of the smaller captured vessels.

Rackham returned to Nassau, met Anne Bonny, received a pardon and then spent most of his piratical treasure in courting her and persuading her to marry him.

Vane, in the meantime, immediately started to re-build his pirate fleet. He was doing pretty well, with a growing collection of boats, when a hurricane took him out. He washed ashore on a small island, alive but with only one crew member. The two lived on the island for months, eating fruit and turtles. Eventually a ship captained by an old friend of Vane’s found them.

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But times had changed. Holford, Vane’s old friend, had gone straight. He took off the crew member, but refused to take Vane, saying, “I shan’t trust you aboard my ship unless I carry you a Prisoner, for I shall have you caballing with my Men, knock me on the Head, & run away with my Ship a pyrating.”

Vane was left on the island alone. When the next ship came by, Vane claimed to be an honest sailor, and signed aboard the new ship as a deck-hand. His luck, however had deserted him. Very shortly thereafter, the ship he was serving on ran into the vessel of Captain Holford, who recognized Vane and outed him.

There was a reward on Vane’s head, and he was carried into Jamaica and tried as a pirate. Though this sort of thing usually went quickly, taking at most a matter of weeks, Vane stayed in prison for over a year. Then Charles Vane, pirate and revolutionary, went out with a whimper, not with the loud explosion he would have wanted. He was hanged on March 29th, 1720. 

TS Rhodes is the author of The Pirate Empire series. She blogs about pirates at thepirateempire.blogspot.com